After many centuries of armed conflict, Britain's alliance with France [against Russia] during the Crimean War (1854-56) at last began a process of reconciliation between the two nations. Latent hostility amongst the general public on both sides of the Channel however, was far more entrenched and it was to be another half-century before matters improved significantly. Eventually, after several years of prolonged negotiations to settle several outstanding territorial disputes across the world, the Anglo-French agreement signed in Paris on 8th April 1904 finally ushered in a new era of understanding between Britain and France. Although essentially an inter-governmental agreement, the so-called 'Entente Cordiale', as it soon became known, was also the result of the personal involvement of King Edward VII, especially during his triumphant state visit to Paris in May 1903. As a means of cementing the raw alliance and also to impress the wider world, the French President then decided to send his country's main battle fleet on a goodwill visit to Portsmouth, one of the tangible results of which was this spectacular painting executed by W.L.Wyllie at the height of his powers.
Accompanied by his wife 'Mim' (Marion Amy Wyllie), the artist made his preparatory sketches for the arrival scene from the deck of one of the several liners chartered for the purpose and which his wife vividly described as follows in her 1935 memoir We Were One:
"It is not often that one has the privilege of seeing the sight that Bill [W.LW.] and I, in company with thousands, witnessed that day in the summer of 1905 when the French fleet came to England and the "Entente Cordiale" was complete. Our French brothers were with us, and it was real joy that filled the souls on board the Union Castle liner Armadale Castle. As the splendid French squadron came in view, the weather that had been wet and cold cleared - just as a faint ghost of the ships was sighted on the horizon, the thick grey clouds dispersed. On the squadron came, bringing the sunlight with them from La Belle France, pushing from their bows the big white waves of misunderstanding and prejudice, as they approached through a band of pale brilliant green sea. Led by the Masséna, and keeping perfect station, on they came, belching thick black smoke that hid the hulls of the ships in the rear from sight, only allowing the tall Marconi masts with their bright waving tricolours, to appear above it. As the flagship came abreast of the Armadale Castle, a ringing cheer burst out, which the Frenchmen returned with interest. The excursion boats heeled sponsons under, with their shouting mass of humanity taking up the tale. The fleet with its virile workmanlike torpedo-boats steamed majestically up the Solent.
Our splendid Channel Fleet of battleships and cruisers, dressed with countless fluttering flags, and the crews standing with linked hands all round the ships and the tops, was moored in a line from the West Brambles buoy to off Browndown point, with destroyers in an inner line to the north, and the 1st Cruiser Squadron outside to the southward. Off Osborne, the Masséna broke out a signal, which ran down the whole French line, the ships bursting into flame and white smoke as the guns roared a salute, which was at once answered from the welcoming English fleet. The picture is before me as I write. It is the strongest picture that he ever painted. The 'Entente Cordiale' at that moment was complete...."
The French flagship Masséna was a fearsome pre-dreadnought battleship named after André Masséna, Duc de Rivoli (1758-1817), a great soldier and a Marshal of France under Napoleon. Laid down in 1892, launched in 1895 and completed in 1898, she displaced 12,355 tons, measured 384 feet in length and could make 18 knots under full steam. Formidably armed and armoured, she was designed to impress and the ideal vessel to lead the fleet in a propaganda exercise such as this 1905 visit to Portsmouth.
Armadale Castle was a relatively new liner belonging to Union Castle and completed in 1903 for the company's principal Southampton to Cape Town service. A fast ship capable of 17½ knots, she enjoyed a successful career until scrapped in 1936.